Schools in East Sussex are on a robust wide area network (WAN). Yet when East Sussex County Council ICT Schools Services wanted to implement network monitoring and client management, it was careful to avoid a solution that was dependent on the WAN. So the ICT ultimately became a managed network monitoring provider, selling optional services to participating schools.
While most of the schools in East Sussex buy some IT services from the ICT, they don't particularly want to be forced into doing so, especially at a time when many of the 192 schools in the district are becoming independent academies or federated schools.
“It is a different political environment we are facing, and that was one of the key considerations that we had when we were looking at how we redeveloped our services. Gone are the days when we could provision something centrally and enforce that on schools,” said Kris Scruby, ICT Schools Services manager.
That leaves the ICT in an odd position since it needs to upgrade the network and then ensure reliability through network monitoring and client management. After all, many of the East Sussex schools are increasingly dependent on network access, with Internet connections to interactive whiteboards in every classroom, for example.
These schools had an optional Metro VPN broadband connection, which connected them to each other and the council as part of the National Education Network, now called the East Sussex Education Network (ESEN). But the ICT's services were creaking with age: “Our support services were over 10 years old and were very much time-centric with scheduled visits and had become quite reactionary,” said Scruby.
To improve matters, the ICT will develop the ESEN into a public services network (PSN) with partners, including NHS, the police, fire and rescue in what will essentially be a “network of networks within East Sussex,” Scruby explained.
To enable dependable remote connectivity on that network, the ICT bought the CentraStage network monitoring tool, which is not dependent on the WAN.
“There were different routes we could have taken. On client management we looked at about seven different products including the previous solution, NetOp Remote Control, which just did basic remote support and was far more dependent on being on the WAN,” said Scruby.
Then the ICT developed a managed network monitoring and management service known as the Premier Service that costs the same as the old service. Scruby specified client management to every device, as well as the ability to monitor LANs. He evaluated Microsoft solutions including SCCM (System Center Configuration Manager), and “some of their network and client management tools.”
“We looked at NetSupport, Symantec, all big enterprise systems that offered some fantastic facilities and benefits,” he said. “However, it was the political driver that became difficult to us. To put in the infrastructure required for those systems was very costly because we needed to install equipment here and within the schools and an extensive number of software licenses. There was also the issue of domain control, domain authority.”
Every Sussex school has its own domain, and although they all share the WAN, there is no Active Directory control from each local authority: “That would be quite a difficult sell to schools, to say we would have a higher level of domain control within the authority.”
CentraStage does not depend on an Active Directory infrastructure. “The central management function is outsourced securely and that acts as a gateway so that we don’t just have the ability to bridge into any of the schools in East Sussex, but we have the opportunity to use that system as we seek to offer services beyond our borders and form partnerships with other local authorities. It was a long-term view,” said Scruby.
“Some of the other products we found were very geared up to an organisation that is not going to split up or change. Our schools are like customers; they could leave the authority, they could come back in,” he said.
Almost 7,000 clients sit in schools and the council, and they are bridged over port 443 Internet outbound gateways. CentraStage allows monitoring of devices that support SNMP. “We are starting to look at this, but many schools do not always buy managed network equipment of a quality recommended that supports this functionality due to cost,” said Scruby, who is forced to be creative in his managed network monitoring: “We are able to monitor network outages by monitoring the clients in conjunction with other tools, [such as] WhatsUp Gold and StatSeeker.”
Scruby has seen an increase in the incidents the service has been able to support remotely. “We are able to set criteria and proactively go out and fix it without a customer having to log it—really powerful stuff,” he said.
He is now looking to move beyond standard network and device management to drive even more value from the monitoring implementation by monitoring power usage: “As the client is on the PC, anything that happens is reportable and it is easy to relate that, based on published information, to how much electrical consumption a device would be using.
“During the last summer holiday period over six weeks we found that nearly 25% of computers were left on in school—a lot of devices using a lot of electricity. This summer we can plan to turn those off remotely.”
The “holy grail,” according to Scruby, is to demonstrate how ICT is improving attainment within schools: “It is very early days, but we are starting to look through some of the reporting. With the monitoring we have in place, and we haven’t developed this yet, it is still a concept, we feel the next step is to try and bridge the two.”